David Bellos, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011)
Translation between languages is an enterprise that has variously been seen as impossible, unreliable, unnecessary, or not cost-effective enough. In our English-dominated culture, it’s something of an endangered species. Princeton professor David Bellos, on the other hand, believes that far from being a sort of awkward linguistic appendage we might better do without, translation is central to how we think and experience the world as human beings. And after reading Is That a Fish in Your Ear? you’ll most likely agree.
Don’t worry about the topic being too dry or erudite. Bellos is clearly no literary snob (his title is a quotation from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, after all) and the book’s 32 short chapters are witty, playful, and endlessly thought-provoking. Did you know that in Russian there is no word for “blue”? (If you’re going to translate that word, you first have to decide whether it’s dark or light blue.) Did you realize that the work of simultaneous interpreters at the UN is as stressful as that of air traffic controllers? Have you wondered how the Bible can be translated into languages that have no way to express the concept of a person’s thoughts being different from his outer actions? Do you understand how Google Translate actually works, or why legalese really is a separate language?
All of these fascinating questions and many others are explored, with the overarching aim of illuminating what translation does. Even if you were never to read or listen to a word of a translation from another language, this would be relevant to you, because translation is part of what makes us human. As Bellos puts it in his conclusion:
…[T]he practice of translation rests on two presuppositions. The first is that we are all different — we speak different tongues and see the world in ways that are deeply influenced by the particular features of the tongue that we speak. The second is that we are all the same — that we can share the same broad and narrow kinds of feelings, informations, understandings, and so forth. Without both of these suppositions, translation could not exist.
Nor could anything we would like to call social life.
Translation is another name for the human condition.
Far from deploring the different ways we have of expressing ourselves and finding them a source of confusion, Bellos encourages us to celebrate them, and to embrace the activity of bridging them through translation. As Bellos argues, “The diversity of language is a treasure and a resource for thinking new thoughts.” So, I would say, is this book. It’s certainly one I’ll treasure and return to, as a deeply enjoyable and stimulating read.